Federal officials in Georgia have indicted two dozen defendants on federal conspiracy charges after they said they uncovered a transnational, multi-year investigation into a human smuggling and labor trafficking operation.

This operation illegally imported Mexican and Central American workers into brutal conditions on South Georgia farms, according to a press release this week from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia.

Federal officials unsealed a 54-count indictment from what they call Operation Blooming Onion.

Federal officials said they began investigating what they called the Patricio transnational criminal organization in November 2018.

“The indictment alleges that in or before 2015, the conspirators and their associates ‘engaged in mail fraud, international forced labor trafficking, and money laundering, among other crimes,’ fraudulently using the H-2A work visa program to smuggle foreign nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras into the United States under the pretext of serving as agricultural workers,” according to the press release.

“The activities took place within the Southern, Middle, and Northern Districts of Georgia; the Middle District of Florida; the Southern District of Texas; and Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere. The conspirators required the workers to pay unlawful fees for transportation, food, and housing while illegally withholding their travel and identification documents and subjected the workers ‘to perform physically demanding work for little or no pay, housing them in crowded, unsanitary, and degrading living conditions, and by threatening them with deportation and violence.’”

The defendants allegedly forced the workers to dig onions with their bare hands, paid them 20 cents for each bucket harvested, and threatened the workers with guns and violence to keep them in line, the press release said.

“The workers were held in cramped, unsanitary quarters and fenced work camps with little or no food, limited plumbing and without safe water. The conspirators are accused of raping, kidnapping and threatening or attempting to kill some of the workers or their families, and in many cases sold or traded the workers to other conspirators. At least two of the workers died as a result of workplace conditions,” according to the press release.

“In the Southern District of Georgia, these activities were alleged to have taken place in the counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs and Ware as farmers paid the conspirators to provide contract laborers. The conspirators are alleged to have reaped more than $200 million from the illegal scheme, laundering the funds through cash purchases of land, homes, vehicles, and businesses; through cash purchases of cashier’s checks; and by funneling millions of dollars through a casino.”

As investigators moved forward in 2019, three of the conspirators allegedly attempted to intimidate and persuade a witness to lie to a federal grand jury and deny any knowledge of the illegal activities of the Patricio organization, the press release said.

More than 200 law enforcement officers and federal agents from around the United States convened in the Southern District of Georgia to execute more than 20 federal search warrants at target locations, the press release said.

The charges of conspiracy to engage in forced labor, and forced labor, each carry statutory penalties of up to life in prison. The charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy, and tampering with a witness each carry statutory penalties of up to 20 years in prison, the press release said.

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]